Published: June 2010 (UK)
June 2011 (North America)
Finally got around to it: July 2011
I would later realize that the notion that identity is a refuge for the poor and dispossessed—a means of guarding the special interests of those who cannot support themselves—is sorely misguided. Those most wedded to preserving their identity—indeed, handcuffed to it—are often powerful. When all is said and done, they have the most to lose. They just don’t refer to it as identity. They call it tradition, heritage or, simply, history.
Guardian columnist Gary Younge’s new book Who Are We attempts to analyze what lies at the core of identity politics, and how such things have changed in recent years. From the proliferation of increasingly diverse media—and through media, diversity among personalities and the imparting of varied ideologies—to the recent election of Barack Obama in the United States; through cultural and religious gatekeepers and their increased or wavering strength, depending on one’s location in the world; and by way of the challenges and questions levied at individuals, political organizations, communities, and religious groups in an era where everything is visible, and the global village is more a reality than ever before.
Younge’s own perceptions of identity and the transitory meanings thereof are outlined through a personal introductory chapter that charts his own growth and experiences with identity—both in the perception of others and how he has come to view himself and his position within the world, both current and as a reflection of his past. The concept of identity, the author argues, has evolved from simple historical divisions to something that an individual can choose or lay claim to. Whether such claims are recognized by certain figures or cultural/political/religious offices (the gatekeepers) factors into the legitimacy and legality of the claims, but the fact remains that, as argued in the chapter “The Chronicles of Cablinasia” an individual has a right to identify themselves with a particular cultural or social sect, regardless of how that sect or another may view said choice. Younge uses the example of Tiger Woods and his description of himself as “Cablinasian”—a combination of African-American, Chinese, Native American, Thai, and Dutch descent. Woods’ decision to classify himself as neither here nor there in our society’s rigidly defined classification system of Black, White, Asian, etc., certainly raised a few hackles, the decision to do so was not to exclude one or the other, but to refrain from positioning himself within a single historical and cultural sect that would carry with it certain weight that may or may not.
In a cultural melting pot such as ours, where everyone watches everyone else and celebrity remains the golden chalice through which so many rush to identify with (or live through gratuitously), the decision of one member of this “elite” class to align himself or herself with one sect or another becomes a victory in the ever-present desire to one-up one another—and perhaps more importantly for some, a loss to whatever sect did not win the identity of the individual in question.
There is an arms race outlined in Younge’s book—not of weapons or destructive capabilities, but of influence. Influence is a numbers game that relies on presence, commitment, heritage, and authenticity—it’s how various social sects and classes remain relevant on the world’s stage. In the chapter “Blessed Are the Gatekeepers” the importance, and some might say clout, of certain religious groups is brought to light. The ability to have one’s religious identity stripped clean—and through that, the recognition of a marriage—is a potentially devastating blow to an individual’s identity, and the identities of their family. But this right remains in certain Jewish Orthodox practices, where one’s lifestyle, right down to interests and passions held, could compromise a person’s right to consider themselves a part of the faith. This is not limited to faith and religious practices, but can be attributed to race and the colour of one’s skin as well. Regardless of how one is brought up, there are, in many parts of the world, obstacles and gatekeepers in place to force definitions where they see fit, and to extract them where they feel threatened, whether such actions are necessary or not.
Younge dissects each of these elements with a critical eye that, while objective, never loses the subjectivity he displays in the opening chapter. His experiences and interactions with others have given him a strong vocabulary, which he uses to pull apart the various levels of societal substructures—from the political to the religious and all points in between—and expose the still bitter pill: while we may have more ways by which to define ourselves and each other, our limitations—personal affectations and fears, and our reliance on existing legacy offices and ideologies—our ability to embrace all methods of personal and social definition remains trapped in the grip of the question of what it means to belong, and does it still matter.